ballplaying: Profiles, interviews
The Zen Master of Tennis                                 Seattle Weekly,  June 12, 1991

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© 2005-2020 Interplay
Renaissance athlete Torben Ulrich hits balls against the wall,
writes for newspapers, and plays jazz

(as printed.)

By Frank Wetzel

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WHEN AT LAST YOU CLIMB A PEAK IN Tibet to ask the proverbial guru there the meaning of existence, I know whom you will find: Torben Ulrich. No need to climb the Himalayas, however. You may see Ulrich, perhaps mistake him for a street person, jogging (no, running) in downtown Seattle. His wispy beard, streaked with gray, reaches halfway to his waist. His long hair is tied behind his head in a pony tail. What sets Ulrich apart is the grace of his movement; it is instantly clear that he marches to a different drummer. Except that he doesn't really march. Rather, he glides, swoops, waltzes, skates, and sometimes gavottes to music he alone can hear.

At Ralph's Deli on Fourth Avenue, where he often eats, he looks like Central Casting's choice for the role of writer, filmmaker, painter, or ascetic Eastern mystic-all of which he is. Not until you see him at nearby Denny Regrade Park at Third and Bell, hitting a tennis ball against the wall, do you get a clue to his best-known identity: a worldclass tennis player who played at Wimbledon for 20 years and participated in 100 Davis Cup matches for his native Denmark.

Ulrich may be the only person who sees the artistic possibilities in batting a tennis ball against a wall. In 1988, with codirector Gil de Kermadec, he made a 45-minutr. film for the French Tennis Federation and the French Ministry of Sports called La "Balle au Mur -- roughly, the ball and the wall. Interspersed with earnest discussions by such tennis luminaries as Ivan Lendl, Ken Rosewall, Martina Navratilova, and Rod Laver on the value of hitting against walls (rhythm, footwork, consistency, eye-hand coordination) are scenes of Ulrich playing against a variety of backstops: rough walls, smooth walls, tall walls. Against garbage cans; a departing bus, along an airport's moving walkway. Sometimes he substitutes a furled umbrella for a racket.

In the film's final scene, Ulrich is riding on the Paris Metro. Dressed in topcoat and fedora, he reaches under his coat, draws out a racket, and begins hitting a ball against the car window. Other passengers turn to stare. Then, with fine Gallic shrugs, they too pullout their rackets and start hitting.

During that time of life when athletes are generally in their prime-from late teens to early 4Os-tennis was more than incidental to Ulrich's life, but still ranked only third in his priorities. First came music; he played clarinet from Munich to Monte Carlo in highly regarded New Orleans-style jazz groups.

Then came journalism: music reviews or his daily column for the Danish newspaper Politiken. Finally came tournaments.

Those were the days of shamateur tennis. Pompous officials fought to maintain the sport's hoity-toity, dress-for-dinner snobbishness. Players were forbidden to accept prize money; despite the opposition of Ulrich's father, an advertising executive who was president of the Danish Lawn Tennis Association and a participant in 74 Davis Cup matches, the umbrella Danish sports authority limited participation in tournaments abroad to 56 days per year.

So, in those days, Ulrich was at best a part-time player. Often he would stay up all night listening to music (for a time he and friends owned their own jazz; club), go directly to the newspaper in the morning to write a review or his daily column, then. sometimes near exhaustion, drag himself off to a match.

He was a late-blooming phenomenon, the Satchel Paige of tennis. Not until he was in his 40s did Ulrich become a recognized world champion. In 1976, he won the international Grand Masters championship for men 45 and older, sweeping nine of the circuit's 14 events that year against top players that included Pancho Gonzales, Vic Seixas, Pancho Segura, and Frank Sedgeman (Rosewall and Laver joined the Masters later). Ulrich's winnings in 1976 were $52,715, when that was big money.

GROWING UP in Copenhagen, Ulrich was a promising skater and soccer and table tennis player. During the German occupation in World War II, his maternal grandparents, who were Jewish, escaped to Sweden hidden under a pile of coal in the hold of a ship. Ulrich, his mother, and his brother attempted to follow but were apprehended and interned. Because they were only part Jewish, Ulrich's father managed to win their release in a few days.

The family eventually escaped to Sweden. There, under the protection of King Gustavus V, who knew his father, Ulrich started to play tennis regularly. He first played at the All-England Club in 1945 and in the Wimbledon tournament in 1948, returning to the latter for the next 20 years. Several times in the course of his hundred or so Davis Cup matches, he led the Danes to the European finals. He played both singles and doubles; his partners included his brother Jørgen, Kurt Nielsen, Jan Leschly, and Sven Davidson. The team won a number of tourneys, including the German, French Indoors, and British hard court.

His successes during this period notwithstanding, Ulrich was more journalist than athlete until 1961. Then, in an outrageous. ceremony mocking the amateur rules of the time, he solemnly signed a professional contract-for 17 cents. Free at last to concentrate on tennis, and at 41 much older than his opponents, he joined the World Championship Tennis circuit.. He looked, in the words of a Sports Illustrated profile by Mark Kram, "like a tired old monk bringing up the end of a procession." Still, Kram wrote, players muttered when they saw Ulrich's name opposite theirs in the draw, inwardly cursing his stamina and touch, the spin that "stops a ball dead, makes it break right or left, or sends it shooting-low and deep off the canvas or grass."

While on the circuit, Ulrich occasionally visited Seattle. In the I 970s, David Sennett, tennis director at the Mill Creek Tennis Club, invited him to represent the club as a touring professional. Ulrich accepted, occupying a condominium at Mill Creek several times a year while here to teach clinics. A more compelling reason for his residency in Seattle had to do with a telephone interview that had been conducted for a magazine article a year before by Molly Martin, an editor at The Seattle Times. The article somehow was never written, but Martin has been Ulrich's companion for the past ten years.

ULRICH BECAME interested in New Orleans jazz when only 9 or 10 years old, and music still plays a vital part in his life. His son Lars is the drummer in the heavy metal group Metallica. Lars' godfather was the late jazz saxophonist Dexter Gordon, star of the movie 'Round Midnight and a former resident of Copenhagen.

Years ago, as Louis Armstrong was arriving by ferry from Sweden, Ulrich and his jazz band met him at a Copenhagen wharf, playing such" standards as "That's When I Come Back to You," "Big Butter and Egg Man," and other New Orleans favorites, from the back of a truck. Satchmo, delighted, climbed up and sang along. Ulrich later played behind Armstrong in more formal settings, and he continues to follow music closely, weaving news about jazz into his reporting of the American scene for Danish newspapers.

A recent full-page article he wrote for Information, a Danish daily, was titled "Where Pies Go When They Die," about Twin Peaks, the TV show introduced this season to immediate popularity in Europe. Other writings reflect on more serious aspects of America. Long before the recent hue and cry about exploitation of AfricanAmericans in collegiate sports, for example, Ulrich was worrying in print about the loss of dignity of black college athletes who didn't make it into professional sports and fell back into the ghetto.

A book, No Ball to Speak Of, is nearing publication. Its left-hand pages, written in English, are paradoxical and epigrammatic. On the right are prose explanations in Danish. Ulrich is doing the book's illustrations, too. He lays out sheets of rice paper, dips a jump rope into paint, and makes one or two energetic skips, the rope leaving semicircular swirls of paint on the paper. He randomly (or so it seems) adds a partial outline of a racket's frame or butt. Then he may drop a paint-soaked ball onto the paper several times. The paintings have been exhibited in Copenhagen, Paris, New York, Los Angeles, Houston, and even Woodstock.

Torben and Martin live downtown, in a tiny apartment that reflects their lives. There are no chairs, couches, or beds. The dominant feature is a Buddhist shrine-paintings on the wall above a table laden with candies and incense. Exercise equipment appears in odd places (Tennis USA once called Ulrich "possibly the finest conditioned athlete for his age in the world," and he has : the body of a man half his age ). The dining table rests on a trampoline, just a few inches off the floor. In the bedroom is a device for suspending oneself upside down by the ankles, perhaps in accord with the observation of Gene Scott, a one-time colleague on the tennis tour, that ." Ulrich sees everything upside down." Tucked into the bedroom is a long sheet of heavy plastic that is stretched across the floor as a surface for a sliding, side-to-side, skating-type exercise done in stocking feet; this is designed to enhance lateral movement. Next to it is a small, ball-mounted-balancing platform intended to strengthen the knees.

Ulrich has been described as disarming and charming, an international bohemian, a bearded eternal transient, always confusing. I find him very European. He greets you with a hug, and takes your arm while walking. As we sit at the Place Pigalle restaurant in the Market, he gets up from the table to demonstrate a tennis motion, oblivious of customers and waiters. He speaks softly, precisely, effusively. Knowing he studied Latin, and presuming that in addition to English and Danish he speaks Swedish, French, and German, I ask if he speaks them all fluently. "Not Latin," he replies.

BUDDHISM HAS BEEN expanding as the focus of Ulrich's life ever since his school days in Sweden. The focus intensified progressively during the '50s, '60s, and '70s, and even more so in the '80s. He has studied in India and Tibet, and demonstrated his intense personal interest in Buddhism in 1987 by repeatedly prostrating himself, day after day, in an up-and-down bowing motion, while making his way from the Center for Tibetan Buddhism in Copenhagen to a similar center near Rf1Jedby-a distance of more than 90 miles. Ulrich said the trek was meant as a gesture of respect for Tenga Rinpoche, his Tibetan teacher. He adds that such repetition gradually replaces monotony "by a new understanding of the unending renewal of everything living: the fields, the harvest, the playing rules -- and one's own steps.

''In this way, also, there can be no talk about the goal or finish line as something a good ways down the road. It's at all times right at hand, just like the obstacles and the disturbances. "

Ulrich's approach to athletic competition obviously differs from the traditional Western view, "where one is trying to stand out at the expense of the surroundings. "There is no division between eating, sleeping, going to the john, or doing athletics. It's all the same. Having said that, however, it's of course also completely different. In that spaciousness in which it is the same, it also becomes completely different," he told an interviewer.

Well, you needn't understand Ulrich to appreciate him.

The consummate competitive athlete and studious Buddhist fully recognizes the dichotomy between the two. A brochure on one of Ulrich's recent lectures at the Omega Institute for Holistic Studies in New York state speaks of his observations on the "irreconcilable philosophy of spiritual practice and competitive sports." It says he "cuts through both athletic materialism and New Age romance."

This reconciling of Buddhism's compassion and Western competitiveness seems successful. Last summer I watched Ulrich play in a tournament at the Seattle Tennis Club (where he won the national 60s division for the second year without losing a set). About to receive serve, he interrupted the match to carry an insect from the court to safety on the sidelines. Years before, with Ulrich ahead of John Newcombe by two sets at Forest Hills, a butterfly flew into his face. The match seemed to turn after that, and Ulrich lost. Discussing the incident later, he quoted the Taoist philosopher Chuang-tzu: "Was I then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or am I now a butterfly dreaming I was a man?"

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Copyright 1991 by Seattle Weekly. Posted with permission.